The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century
by Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC
List Price: $24.95 Hardback: 336 Pages
Publisher: Zenith Press
Publish Date: Sept. 12, 2004
Review by Bruce L. Brager.
Writers for, and readers of, www.militaryhistoryonline.com, not to mention
writers and readers of any of the military and political history books
mentioned on this web site, should have taken at least one lesson from our
readings and our writings. Like most such lessons, it is easy to state, almost
clichéd, but is often ignored. The lesson is - Asking the wrong questions leads
almost inexorably to the wrong answers. "Almost," because luck is always a
factor in life. Battles can be won be accident. The "on any Sunday" factor
applies here as well as on the sports field.
But it is very hard to win a war by luck, as throughout the sports season
talent will win out, not just talent but planning, asking the right questions
and doing what you need to find and carry out the right answers, will overcome
the luck which may give battles an odd and unexpected result.
Thomas X. Hammes, a recently retired colonel in United States Marine Corps with
experience dealing with insurgency and terrorism, asks one basic question but
very important question in his book, published in 2004 (while Hammes was still
on active duty) but still very important reading. What type of wars will this
country likely fight in the coming few decades? He asks an equally basic
supporting question – Why do we assume our potential enemies, having seen what
happens to anyone who takes the United States on in conventional warfare, is
going do to so? Our enemies are not stupid.
Hammes' fundamental point in this well-written book is that we have to ask what
type of warfare our enemies will fight. He shows, by examining different cases
from history – military history is far more than just interesting -- that our
current and potential enemies will seek a method of warfare that attacks us
where we are weakest – an ancient core military principle, by the way. Enemies
will go after our will to fight, our patience and persistence to see
potentially vast long term efforts through.
Hammes defines the first three generations of warfare. First generation warfare
reflected what are called linear tactics, using columns and lines of men. "The
essential requirement was to mass manpower at the point of main effort," as
Hammes puts it. Second generation is firepower based, and culminated in World
War One trench warfare. Third generation, most visible in World War II, is
maneuver based. Fourth generation warfare, in Hammes' words:
". . . uses all available networks – political, economic, social, and military
– to convince an enemy's political decision makers that their strategic goals
are either unavailable or too costly for the perceived benefits. It is an
evolved form of insurgency. . . Unlike previous generations of warfare, it does
not attempt to win by defeating the enemy's military forces. Instead. . . it
directly attacks the minds of enemy decision makers to destroy the enemy's
Hammes uses the Vietnam War, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan, as examples of
weaker powers using unconventional methods to defeat far stronger conventional
powers. Interestingly, Hammes cites the September 11, 2001 attacks on the
Pentagon and the World Trade Center as strategic mistakes on the part of Al
Qaeda. The best way to attack political will is to make the results not worth
the cost. Measures that seem to strike directly at national welfare, however
unlikely they are to destroy the nation, only strengthen political will. Hammes
says that Al Qaeda paid a heavy price for its brutal overreach.
Hammes worries that the American military establishment is preparing for the
wrong kind of warfare, against a future symmetrical enemy. Symmetrical enemies
rely on conventional means to stand up and confront the United States, at least
initially. Our most recent symmetrical enemy was Saddam Hussein. But, as
experts have pointed out, we are not likely to have an enemy in the future nice
enough to just stand there posturing, waiting for us to clobber him. Most
potential enemies, even advanced centralized governments such as the Chinese –
sometimes called a future "peer competitor' - are certain to realize that in
conventional warfare of any type against the United States they are probably
going to lose. The American military is just too good, and we may end up the
victims of our own success if we let the battle shift away from our strengths.
Hammes calls for "teaching" flexibility. Teach our military to be able to
respond to the likelihood of attack anywhere by any means. Teach the military
to recognize the changing nature of the battlefield – that term may itself be
obsolete – and how to respond. Teach the military that technology is valuable,
but the human factor is likely to remain the deciding factor for the
foreseeable future. Teach the military, and the civilians agencies with which
it will have to work, to be able to cope with change. (Hammes thinks it likely
that an as yet undefined Fifth Generation Warfare may already be emerging.)
Hannes mentions, though the one weakness of this book may not stress enough,
that we still may face older forms of warfare. The basic need to "expect the
unexpected" provides an excellent reason to maintain the American edge in
conventional warfare while adapting to new methods. (In World War Two, the
United States developed the ultimate propeller drive war plans, the P-51
fighter and the B-29 bomber, while also working to create the atomic bomb.)
Being able to react means having the resources to implement what national
leadership considers the proper course of action – having the army we want, not
just the army we have. Coming up with an appropriate response does little good
if one lacks the resources to carry out the response.
Our main resource, however, has to be the ability to learn, since however much
we try we will never anticipate all future threats. Flexibility and the ability
to adapt have always been major American characteristics. We succeed when they
come to the fore, fail when they recede to the background. "The unexpected is
woven into every generation of war; it is foolish to think we will be exempt.
We have to build flexible organizations."
Hammes uses historical examples to make many of his points. This is
appropriate. Descriptions of the war in Vietnam, and Al Qaeda, where enemies
achieved great success by skirting our strengths and hitting us at our
weaknesses, should sound familiar. Psychological warfare against enemy leaders,
not to mention the motivating power of an idea, were the major elements in how
the United States became independent from Great Britain. Asymmetric warfare was
how a poorly armed band of rebels defeated the greatest superpower of its day.
Review by Bruce L. Brager (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Copyright © 2006 Bruce L. Brager.
Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign
policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty
Published online: 06/08/2006.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.